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Paul Pines

John Lee

Sharel Cassity

Buster Williams

Cindy Blackman

Noah Bless, Alex Norris, Joel Frahm

Photos by
Rudy Lu

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Shepard Park
Lake George, NY
September 19, 2010

by J Hunter

Notes from “Jazz at the Lake” Day 2 – a lot cloudier, a little cooler, and (occasionally) a wee bit damper:

EQUALITY ROCKS THE HOUSE – Once upon a time, the only way a woman could get into jazz was as a singer, a pianist, or (in the case of Shirley Horn and Tania Maria) both. No more! Anyone who attended Freihofer’s Gazebo stage this year saw alto player (and current Berklee student) Hailey Niswanger and bassist Linda Oh kick serious butt – not only as gifted musicians, but as accomplished leaders. Almost three months later, in one of those great moments when an audience’s attitude about an artist goes from “Who’s that” to “WHO is THAT”, Sharel Cassity made the ground shake at Shepard Park.

Cassity’s blazing opener “Say What” had her on soprano sax, and it wasn’t sugary-sweet soprano or effects-laden soprano, either (Lookin’ at you, Jane Ira Bloom); this was Old School, hard-core jazz soprano with endless guts and major-league power. Cassity’s alto work on the slow blues “Love’s Lament” had equal helpings of passion and precision, and her driving take on Jimmy Heath’s “Sound for Sore Ears” showcased her peerless sense of solo construction. Hot young trombonist Michael Dease contributed his own tune “Force” (written for ex-Dizzy Gillespie sideman John Lee), Greg Gisbert was nothing but terrific on trumpet and flugelhorn, and legendary pianist George Cables’ safecracker touch was a key ingredient of Cassity’s waltzing new tune “The Hardest Truth.”

Cassity’s eye-opening 2009 unveiling Relentless was released by Lee’s Jazz Legacy Productions, and Lee was right there on stage at Lake George, playing pulsing electric bass next to kicking drummer Andrew Swist. (Now that’s DIY!) Dease’s own JLP debut Grace was released late this Spring, and Cables is part of the Hall-of-Famer-intensive group The Cookers, whose JLP disc Warriors will be out this fall. In other words, Cassity didn’t bring a band to JATL – she brought a record label. But the day was all about the Juilliard-trained multi-instrumentalist, and man, did she nail it! When Paul Pines asked the audience if they wanted another tune after Cassity’s wild closer “Call to Order”, someone in the crowd yelled out what the rest of us were thinking: “How about another hour?”

DREAMS CAN COME TRUE – Pines referred to the quartet bassist Buster Williams led on stage as “a dream team.” To the more traditional-minded, it seemed like the kind of dream you have after eating a double-anchovy pizza by yourself: Williams and pianist Mulgrew Miller definitely made sense together, but the other half of the quartet? Drummer Cindy Blackman’s latest disc Another Lifetime is a nuclear-powered tribute to the late fusion pioneer Tony Williams, while mallet master Stefon Harris has been splitting time between his own electric group Blackout and the towering octet SFJAZZ Collective. So using conventional wisdom, two of these players were not like the others.

Here’s the thing: You know what the biggest problem is with conventional wisdom? IT’S CONVENTIONAL! All the music may have been technically straight-ahead, with an instrumental makeup reminiscent of the Modern Jazz Quartet; however, unlike the MJQ, this music may have been cool, but it wasn’t polite! Miller’s playing is as immaculate as hs trademark dark suit, but his range of expression stretched from the luxurious ballad “Christina” to Williams’ righteous workup of Monk’s “Epistrophy.” Harris had only his vibes for this gig, but that was all he needed as he left behind the responsibilities of leadership and simply played his tail off, most notably on the staggering “Related to One.” Blackman doesn’t play drums as much as she does MMA (Musical Martial Arts): One second she’s keeping the beat rock steady, and then her sticks flash like lightning and she’s into a tremendous fill you’d never think of for trad jazz. Blackman’s riveting work freed Williams to heat each piece with warm fat timbre, and Blackman’s solo on the encore “I Didn’t Know What Time It Was” had the crowd reeling.

“You guys don’t care if it rains, do you?” Buster asked innocently before the set. As it happened, the skies did open up during “The Triumphant Dance of The Butterfly”, but apart from grabbing for their umbrellas, the crowd didn’t move. They were too busy living the dream.

DANCING IN THE PARK – The crowd was a little lighter when Pines brought Samuel Torres on to close JATL. Apparently, some people had decided things couldn’t get better after Williams’ quartet had set fire to the place – and of the people who did stay, more than a few thought Torres’ group had no chance of matching up with what came before them. In retrospect, those attitudes were understandable… but remember what I said about conventional wisdom?

If the size of Torres’ group wasn’t a clue that this music was going to be big, the rousing opening of “Cosita Rica – The Richness of Small Things” definitely got the message across. Torres’ résumé includes time with Latin Jazz masters Tito Puente and Poncho Sanchez (among many others), so the Colombian conguero knows how to get a party started. The three-piece horn section was tight as a drum, and between John Benitez’ thumping bass and Manuel Valer’a percussive piano, Torres’ septet had heads bobbing in short order. Hot salsa wasn’t the only thing Torres served, though: He had us all leaning in to hear his work on the kalimba (a thumb piano) during “La Nina El En Agua”, and “Bambuco” was both intimate and romantic even as it still danced. New York City’s chaotic hustle was the prime driver behind “Lincoln Tunnel” (“Dedicated to all the commuters round the world…”), while West Africa was a heavy influence on the title track to Torres’ new disc Yaounde.

In the Weird Coincidences Department, Joel Frahm held down the sax chair for Torres, and raked us all with sensational work on tenor and soprano; the latter instrument was one of the highlights of the closer “Un Atardercer en Cartegena de Indias.” What was weird is that Frahm co-led one of the best jazz party discs of 2009: The sensational Aretha Franklin tribute Project A, which I wrote about in an All About Jazz article last year. I reprised that article this year, and one of the party discs I named was Yaounde. That’s why I told anyone leaving after Buster Williams’ set, “You’re gonna miss something really, really great!” And I was right.

J HUNTER is a former announcer/producer for radio stations in the Capital Region and the Bay Area, including KSJS/San Jose (where he was Assistant Music Director/Jazz Programming) and Q104 WQBK/Albany. He is a frequent contributor to the web site All About Jazz and to the monthly music magazine State of Mind. He currently resides in Clifton Park.